It is important to consider that the contemporary concept of nation, seen all around the world, is largely influenced by the treaty of Westphalia signed among the European nations after decades of war. This awareness may offer us some space to think that the borders constructed in peace may be spared from this Westphalian influence. The “open-border” between Nepal and India is one such case. While the Sugauli treaty signed at the conclusion of the Anglo-Nepal war two hundred years ago set the current border between Nepal and India, the war was fought in the western Himalayan and not necessarily on the flat lands of Terai. It is unfortunate that the southern border has today become the site of distrust and political muscle-flexing that is associated with contestations over nationalism and its deficits.
The notion of national economy is related to this. The Anglo-Nepal wars were fought over grievances largely on the British side that Nepal was not allowing access to its market through the southern border. The earlier set of wars fought with Tibetan on the northern borders were not different: one major cause behind a series of Nepal-Tibet wars was Tibet’s concern that Nepal was lapsing standards of purity in minting of Tibetan coins.
In the current times, the border check post in Birgunj has seen the thickest traffic of export, import and consumable goods for Nepal in the past several decades. In fact, the economies of Birgunj and Raxaul, the twin towns spread on both sides of this border, have drawn largely on trade. It thus came especially ironic that the blockade on this particular border point was the staunchest during the unofficial blockade imposed by India on Nepal following the disagreements on the new constitution written in 2015. Several articles and reports have been written on this, including a book written in Nepali, by Girish Giri (2016), which argues that smuggling was almost as big a part of the border protest as the blockade itself. It might still be worthwhile reflecting on the sociology of this particular episode of border blockade so as to understand the details of the making of this political and economic crisis. In doing so, I emphasize that capital-city perspectives must be differentiated from the local, borderland perspectives.
First of all, it is important to note that the sit-down protest on the Miteri bridge connecting the two border check posts came spontaneously from within Nepal. The participation was unprecedented, and people walked forth in large numbers from the surrounding villages. This public grievance should not be seen as a sabotage of vengeance of the border people against their fellow compatriots but a legitimate grievance against the state’s neglect of their identity.
Second, it is important to note that the alliance of parties calling for these protests have had a long list of grievances against the central state which practiced the hegemonic notion of nationalism which continued to exclude the symbols of the Madhesi population. They also had legitimate concerns that the past assurances provided to them by the Nepali state had been tossed aside in making of the new constitution promulgated in the second Constituent Assembly.
Third, the goodwill between the local populations living on both sides of the border – sometimes referred to as the ‘relationship of bread and bride’ (roti-beti rishta) was strong. This can be seen in the spontaneous donation drive that generated resources to offer logistical support including daily meals for tens of thousands of people participating in the border protest.
Fourth, India’s role in enforcing the border blockade was implicit but deliberate. The souring of the Delhi-Kathmandu relationship, as reflected in the way India gave cold shoulder to the promulgation of the new constitution, reduced Indian goodwill for Nepal.
The result was unfortunate, not only for the relationship of the two countries who have otherwise maintained mutual respect and support but also for the common people living in the capitals and the border towns. Kathmandu saw acute shortage of daily essentials such as kerosene, cooking gas, petrol, medicines and general food supply. The trade slumped while the economics of smuggling took over. The bilateral relationship between the two countries reached the lowest level. The distrust among Nepalis became worse.